It seems like really long ago, but in 2016 the ACC produced its best football season ever.
Eight teams won a bowl game, seven teams finished in the top 25 of the final Sagarin computer rankings (two more than the SEC), Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson won the Heisman Trophy and Clemson won the national title.
The only thing that remains the same for the ACC, heading into the 2019 college football season, is that Clemson is coming off of a national title.
Five ACC teams won a bowl game and only one finished in the top 25 of the Sagarin rankings (the SEC had eight) last season. Syracuse did finish No. 15 in the final AP poll but No. 28 in the computer ranking.
While Syracuse, N.C. State and Wake Forest have surged (relatively) recently, Clemson is the ACC’s only name-brand program holding up its end of the bargain.
The Tigers, who are primed for a fifth straight ACC title and a third national title in four years, are sending the ACC into a time warp. Their domination (30-2 in ACC play the past four years) is starting to look a lot like the Florida State machine from the 1990s.
With the ACC set to meet in Charlotte this week for its annual media kickoff, there will be a lot of praise for the Tigers and a lot of questions for everyone else.
Consider the ACC’s biggest problems, since the high tide of 2016:
▪ FSU, five years removed from a spot in the College Football Playoff and six from a national title, has gone into the tank.
Jimbo Fisher posted five straight double-digit win seasons from 2012 through ‘16 and had a total of six ACC losses over that span. The Noles were the only ACC team other than Clemson with a top-10 finish in the Sagarin rankings during that six-year post-expansion span. (The SEC has had 10 different teams in the top 10, by comparison).
In Fisher’s last season in 2017, the Noles fell to 3-5 in the ACC and 7-6 overall. He left for Texas A&M, and under Willie Taggart last season, the Noles repeated their 3-5 league mark and finished 5-7 and out of a bowl game for the first time in 37 years.
With FSU’s decline, the ACC has gone from a “Big Two” into a lone-wolf operation.
▪ Louisville lost the incomparable Jackson after the 2017 season and then coach Bobby Petrino lost his job. Opposing coaches lined up around the block to kick the unpopular Petrino and the Cardinals while they were down last year.
Louisville went winless in ACC play and six of its conference losses were by at least three touchdowns, including a 61-point debacle at Clemson. An incredible seven of the Cards’ 10 overall losses were by 30 points or more.
Petrino didn’t even make it through the season. The Cards, who peaked at No. 5 in the CFP poll after a 9-1 start in 2016, have to start over completely under Scott Satterfield.
▪ Miami has been in the ACC championship game once since it joined the league in 2004. The Canes started the 2017 season with a 10-0 record and — for real, for real — it felt like “The U” was finally back.
Then Mark Richt’s team dropped the final three games of ‘17 and went 4-6 against “Power 5” opponents in ‘18.
Richt decided to retire rather than overhaul his coaching staff. Former defensive coordinator Manny Diaz slides over to the big chair and is left the task of reviving Miami’s brand.
▪ Virginia Tech made a really smart hire in Justin Fuente from Memphis and he led the Hokies to a division title and 10 wins in 2016. They were 9-4 in Year 2 under Fuente and then some of the backwash from lagged recruiting cycles from the end of the Frank Beamer tenure caught up to them last year.
They squeaked into a bowl game last year to extend a 26-year streak, only to lose to Cincinnati.
More alarming than an uncharacteristically weak defensive effort in 2018: the number of players who have left the program either by choice (nine by transfer) or disciplinary action (three more).
It has been a tumultuous offseason for Fuente. Losing players after a coaching change is not unusual but going through that type of roster turnover in Year 4 is not indicative of a quick bounce-back, either.